There’s been quite the kerfuffle on the Internet about the
revelation that Paula Deen used the word “nigger” when she was younger and
might just still be a bit racist. Now, I’ve seen this woman on her TV show, and
find her to be a cartoon character with her over-enthusiastic “ya’lls” and
overabundance of butter. And I guess I’m not surprised to hear that she thought
a slavery-themed wedding might be a fun idea
The general defense for her actions seems to be “that was a
long time ago.” This got me thinking about my own past.
I grew up in a tiny town in eastern Ohio, near Youngstown.
It’s located right in the “tri-state area” of Ohio, western Pennsylvania and
the panhandle of West Virginia. It’s not the deep South by any stretch, but
when I reflect on my youth, it’s clear there was a subtle, but prevalent,
undercurrent of racism happening.
It was probably most evident in the language we used. When
describing a temporary repair that is just thrown together, someone might say
they “jury rigged” it. When I was a kid, we would say “nigger-rigged.” In fact,
this is still the phrase that comes to mind even today when I’m describing
something cobbled together. I don’t SAY it, of course, but I am embarrassed
that this is the term that my brain automatically generates.
I know I did say this and, for what it’s worth, I know I
didn’t say it with malice. This seems odd to admit, but it was just the term I
was taught, I don’t think I ever considered the greater meaning. I might say
“My seat fell off my bike, so I nigger-rigged it until I could get home.” I’m
sure some of my friends did say it with malice, like “He used a coat hanger to
nigger-rig his muffler back on, just like a stupid Black.” This isn’t meant as
a defense of my slight racism, just an explanation.
As kids, we also played the game where you run up to
someone’s house, ring the bell, then run away. My wife did this too, and she
called it “ding-dong-ditch.” We called it “nigger knocking.” I realize now, as
an adult, that that is just horrible. But again, it was the phase I was taught.
To be clear, I was never taught any overt racism. That is to
say, my parents didn’t instruct me in the ways the negro race was inferior or
anything like that. In fact, I think my parents were pretty progressive, given
the time and their upbringing. But there’s no denying the subtle racism that
was just present in my community.
There were exactly two black kids in my school, brothers.
They were one and two years older than me. In high school terms, that means I
really had no interaction with them. I can’t remember anyone being outright
racist to them, although I’m certain that had to deal with it in subtle and not-so-subtle
ways all their life.
As I ponder this, I realize that there was another act of
racism that comes to mind that had nothing to do with these brothers, but in
many ways was much more overt.
Three blocks from my house there was a guy who married an
Asian woman. I realize that I really know nothing about them. They very much
kept to themselves. I have the impression of the guy being a little twitchy and
odd. I have absolutely no reason to believe this is true, but I always thought
he was a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD (even though I wouldn’t have
thought of it as “PTSD” then) and she was his war bride. This may be complete
fantasy on my part. They had a daughter, who was considerably younger than me.
Which means she was probably five or six years younger, a span of time that
seems insignificant now, but in middle school/high school terms it means we
were never in the same building at the same time, so she might of well have
been in a different state.
There was a definite feeling of “otherness” to this family. Their
front door had the knob in the middle of the door, not offset to one side, like
you’d expect. Today, I’d think it looked like a Hobbit door, but I had not yet
really gotten into Tolkien then, and I always thought of it as an “Asian” door,
whatever that meant. I suspect now that it was just some architect trying to
bring a little interest to an otherwise completely typical ranch style home…
but then, it was (to me) a clear declaration that this family was different.
The mom used to walk her daughter to the bus stop, and wait
with her until she got on. This was in and of itself a little unusual, being
that this was small town America in the late 70s/early 80s, when parents
basically let their kids run wild all over town and didn’t have to worry about
them being kidnapped or killed. But, this woman stop heavily accented broken
English, so clearly this wasn’t the world she grew up in.
Now, in 2013, as a parent myself, I can empathize. How scary
must it have been to not know the culture, not really speak the language, and
send your only child away for eight hours every day?
Our school district was pretty strict about where you got on
the bus. It seems ridiculous to me now, but the bus made three stops alone the
major road that bordered my neighborhood. Each stop was a block apart. Why they
didn’t just have us all walk to the one location I do not know. I mention this,
because I need to make it clear that I never personally witnessed what I’m
going to describe next, only heard about it second hand, as it happened one bus
stop farther down the road from mine.
This Asian mom was apparently a stickler for the rules. And
the rules said that everyone waiting for the bus should stand in a single line,
by age. Again, no other parents came out to wait with their kids except this
one woman, so she was alone in her futile effort to keep everyone in line.
Apparently, she was constantly telling the other kids (most of whom where my
age) to please get back in line. In fact, she did it so often, that my friends
made up a song about it.
It wasn’t clever, or even especially funny, even though we
all laughed like idiots when anyone sang it. Thirty years later, I can still
remember it clearly. It was sung in a stereotypical “Asian” sing-song voice:
I like to believe that my friends weren’t so terrible that
they sang this in front of this woman or, worse, TO this woman. But they
If this woman had been Black, and a bunch of kids sang some
sort of Amos & Andy song to her, it would never be tolerated. But because
the Asian population was so small in my hometown (it might have been exactly
one at that point) and, more to the point, since no-one was on the lookout for
racism toward Asian people, things like this went on. And on.
I don’t know whatever became of this family. They stayed and
dealt with it, or they moved on, I’ll probably never know.
If someone called me out for the racism I exhibited as a
kid, I’m not sure what my answer would be. I suspect it wouldn’t be much
different than Paula Deen’s. “It was a long time ago.” “Everyone said it then.”
“I don’t say that stuff any more.”
Does that make me just as bad as her? I’d like to think not.
But, I might just be fooling myself.